Tuesday,28 March, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1127, 20 - 26 December 2012
Tuesday,28 March, 2017
Issue 1127, 20 - 26 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

Egyptian art and liberty

A Paris exhibition is drawing renewed attention to Egyptian Surrealism, the Middle Eastern expression of an international movement in the arts, writes David Tresilian

Art et Liberté, rupture, guerre et Surréalisme en Egypte (1938-1948), Centre Pompidou, Paris, until 16 January.
Art et Liberté, rupture, guerre et Surréalisme en Egypte

The Pompidou Centre in Paris, home to one of the world’s most important collections of modern and contemporary art, has been playing host to an intriguing exhibition of Egyptian Surrealism, reminding visitors that this early 20th-century international movement in the arts was very far from being confined just to Western Europe.

Though it opened last October, there are still a few days left to catch the exhibition, entitled Art et liberté, rupture, guerre et Surréalisme en Egypte in its Paris iteration, before it closes later this month and moves to the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid and the K21 Museum in Dusseldorf before ending up at the Tate Liverpool in northern England in 2018. 

This is a suitably international trajectory for an exhibition showcasing the Egyptian expression of what was always an international movement in the arts, even if it is unfortunately one that does not include a visit to Egypt or any other Arab country.

The exhibition is curated by independent curators Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, also responsible for the “Nefertiti Theorem” exhibition shown at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris a few years ago (reviewed in Al-Ahram Weekly in September 2013). According to a catalogue note by Bardaouil, as well as being the first time Egyptian Surrealism has been exhibited on a museum scale anywhere in the world, the exhibition is the culmination of years of research into the Egyptian art world of the 1920s and 1930s of which the Nefertiti exhibition was also a part.

Surrealism, a revolutionary movement associated with the desire of the early 20th-century European avant-gardes to break the authority of established artistic conventions, to reject tradition, and to reveal the world afresh in unexpected, unnerving and, for some at least, politically revolutionary ways, originated from Dadaism and other movements that thrived in Europe in the wake of World War. It was perhaps associated particularly with the Frenchman André Breton, who served as the movement’s entrepreneur and overall ideologue.

Yet, it was also more cosmopolitan than Breton’s Paris base might sometimes have implied. There were Surrealists at one time or another in most Western European countries, and figures as different as the Belgian artist René Magritte, also the subject of a current Pompidou exhibition, and the Spaniard painter Salvador Dali were for a time at least paid-up members of the Surrealist cause. 

Inevitably there were schisms, and the Surrealist message was susceptible to becoming muffled or watered-down as time wore on, with both Magritte and especially Dali choosing to present the public with what could look like a set of intellectual conundrums or feeble puns. 

But Breton insisted to the end that Surrealist doctrine, reflected in the movement’s early manifestos, implied both intellectual purity in the face of art market compromise and political domestication and the kind of radical charge associated with the breaking up of the complacent surfaces of everyday life, the liberation of the subversive mix of unconscious processes, and the engagement of the kind of dérèglement de tous les sens – in the French poet Arthur Rimbaud’s famous words – that called into question the solidity of the social world by “deranging” or fundamentally changing the ways in which it was viewed.

To what extent Surrealism was a European import into Egypt and to what extent it grew from native ground is a question the exhibition tackles head on, with joint curator Sam Bardaouil’s gently polemical catalogue essay arguing that neither option quite captures what was special about the Egyptian movement.

The Egyptian surrealists were influenced by European art practices, and some, perhaps most, had been trained and saw the most significant market for their work in Europe, in so far as it had one at all. But this did not mean that Egyptian Surrealism was simply a European import and a colonial-era cultural movement that, lacking native roots and a local audience, inevitably shrivelled when the political framework supporting it disappeared. 

On the contrary, Bardaouil says, the movement drew on local practices and intervened in genuinely local debates. It was at least as authentic an expression of modernity in Egyptian art as its contemporary competitors, themselves the products (in an uncharitable view) of established European art practices, except this time ones more acceptable to larger audiences both in Egypt and abroad. 

While comforting impressionist landscapes, romanticised figure paintings, and, generally, the whole repertoire of the styles and iconography of post-19th-century European art found fertile ground to grow in Egypt where it ruffled few if any feathers, looking attractive on salon walls, Surrealism was deliberately challenging of established taste and was designed to be socially and politically subversive.

It was often ugly and even unpleasant, and it was hardly well-adapted either for decorative purposes or for comforting the social and political status quo. The arbiters of official taste at the time, and the leading art collectors, at least at first showed little interest in legitimating or acquiring Egyptian Surrealist works. 

Bardaouil has some amusing comments in the catalogue on the response of Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil, Egypt’s foremost private collector at the time, to Egyptian Surrealist art. Khalil’s collection, today on display at the Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Cairo, was made up of museum pieces even at the time it was put together, since he was interested chiefly in connoisseurship and collecting the art of previous generations.

This was not at all the kind of work the Egyptian Surrealists were interested in producing, and they saw their work as having an altogether more disruptive charge. As a result, they were blackballed by the official art institutions of the time, the price to be paid, they thought, for insisting on the liberty of the arts to produce discomfort and challenge the status quo.

AROUND THE EXHIBITION: It is with the official art institutions of the time that the Paris exhibition begins, the first room being arranged around a film clip of Egyptian king Farouk visiting the Cairo Salon in the later 1930s organised by the Society of the Friends of Art.

According to the exhibition notes, it was this state-endorsed culture of exhibition practice that the Art and Liberty Group, a group of young Egyptian artists drawn to experiments in contemporary international art, was particularly concerned to fight. In a conservative domestic context in which artists were invited either to align themselves with nationalistic forms of art in line with the needs of the political regime or to produce the conservative material that covered the walls of the annual Salons, those associated with the Art and Liberty Group were determined both to look outwards and to bring art shudderingly down to earth.

Their polemical intent was signalled early on in a document, included in the exhibition, that could almost be taken as a manifesto. Published in December 1938 in Cairo, this document, entitled yahya al-fann al-munhat (Vive Degenerate Art), was produced in the same month that the Art and Liberty Group was founded. It joined Group members – among them the poet Georges Henein, the painter and later film director Kamel Al-Telmisany and the painters Fouad Kamel and Ramses Younan – to the fight against fascism in Europe, where so-called “degenerate art,” including Surrealism, had been proscribed by the Hitler regime. It identified the Group with international experiment, chiefly Surrealism, and with an international politics of art. 

As well as signalling the desire of its signatories to join the international anti-fascist cause, the document also broke with the provincial nationalism and political conservatism of much of the Egyptian art of the time, often more concerned to resurrect the vanished glories of ancient Egypt in, for example, Neo-Pharaonism, or sentimentalise traditional, chiefly rural, life in sugary neo-impressionist painting, than to bring contemporary politics into the reassuring world of art.

These were options rejected by the Art and Liberty Group members, who wanted to see a modern Egyptian art that not only thought of its Egyptian-ness in more challenging terms, but also called into question the conventional geo-politics of art. Committed to the anti-fascist struggle in Europe and the struggle against vertiginous social inequalities at home, interested in Marxism, with its criticisms of the domestic and international economic order, in psychoanalysis, with its critique of the ego, and other cultural movements of the time, they were unwilling to be confined within a limited art paradigm.

The exhibition makes these points by showing the pomp and circumstance associated with the Cairo Salons and the reality of most Egyptian lives at the time. The Group organised its first exhibition in February 1940, some months into the Second World War at a time when Egypt had been pressed into what was still a European war by the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty which guaranteed British use of the country in time of war. British and Commonwealth soldiers roamed the streets of Cairo, much as they had in World War I, and the dire economic circumstances of the period pushed hundreds, probably thousands, of women into prostitution. 

There is an interesting echo of this situation in Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s contemporary novel The Beginning and the End, in which a young woman, pushed into prostitution by economic circumstances, is forced to commit suicide by her brother in a well-known literary depiction of an “honour crime.” The Egyptian film director Salah Abou Seif later made a famous film version of this book, and Midaq Alley, another novel from this period in Mahfouz’s career, also deals with economic deprivation in strikingly frank terms. 

As far as the exhibition is concerned, such brutal realities are illustrated by rooms devoted to the British military occupation of Egypt during World War II and the often frightful living conditions of much of the Egyptian population at the time. Room two of the exhibition, “the Voice of Canons,” examines the responses of the Art and Liberty Group to the War and brings together some fascinating original materials, among them film clips, interviews, and publications from the period. 

Room three, “Fragmented Bodies,” examines the Group’s depictions of the human figure, particularly those of women, in the circumstances of the War, substituting the idealised representation of even the most wretched human figures in traditional Symbolist and Realist art for “deformed, dismembered and distorted bodies…[that] poignantly illustrate the injustices of the time,” as the exhibition notes put it. 

This theme is continued in room five, “the Woman of the City,” in which the Group’s criticisms of sexual difference are presented, often in explicitly feminist terms. Material protesting against the exploitation of women is presented by Henein, Al-Telmisany, Younan and others, including articles that appeared in the Group’s Arabic and French-language publications. Paintings and photographs by Amy Nimr and the painter and activist Injy Afflatoun, joining the Group at the age of just 18 for its third group show in 1942, draw attention both to the circumstances of the War and the ways in which these pressed with particular force on women’s lives.

Perhaps rooms four and six, on “Subjective Realism” and “the Contemporary Art Group,” make up the exhibition’s core, and it is in them that Bardaouil and Tellrath have been most able to further their arguments about the original ideological content and lasting importance of the Art and Liberty Group’s programme. Writing in the exhibition catalogue, Bardaouil draws particular attention to Al-Telmisany and Younan’s writings of the time, which debate questions of European influence, local and imported styles, popular traditions, artists’ training, and the appropriate styles and content of modern Egyptian and by extension Arab art at a time of thorough-going social change.

The imitation of European academic styles could not be the answer, as this made Egyptian artists the prisoners of the established order, reproducing the familiar political and economic division of colonial centre and colonised periphery. Pastiche Neo-Pharoanism ran the risk of reactionary nationalism, comforting to the regime, but ultimately sapping the artist’s independence of mind. The adoption of popular traditions in the name of authenticity could result in “reverse orientalism,” freezing artistic innovation and producing at best a decorative and at worst a reactionary form of art. 

In these circumstances, Al-Telmisany wrote, what could be a more appropriate for Egyptian art than Surrealism? “Have you never been to the Egyptian Museum,” he asked one hostile critic, quoted in the catalogue. “A large proportion of Pharaonic art is Surrealist. Have you never been to the Coptic Museum? A lot of Coptic art is Surrealist… The word ‘Surrealism’ is simply the technical term for what has always been identified as the freedom of the imagination. Freedom of expression, freedom of style – the Orient has been the home of these things for an eternity.”

ART AND LITERATURE: European Surrealism was a movement across the arts, and this was also true of its Egyptian cousin. Rooms eight and nine of the exhibition, on the contributions of Georges Henein to the Group and “Writing with Pictures,” draw attention to the movement’s work in literature as well as in the visual arts.

Born in 1914 and the son of diplomat Sadik Henein Pasha, Henein was one of the Art and Liberty Group’s chief ideologues as well as a distinguished poet and critic in his own right. His international connections and private means allowed him to assist both in organising the Group’s joint shows and in supporting its publications, notably the Arabic-language periodical Al-Tatawwur and the French-language journal and publishing imprint La Part du Sable. 

Al-Tatawwur served, with the French-language periodical Don Quichotte and the Group’s exhibition catalogues and bilingual bulletin Art et Liberté, as a forum in which writers and critics associated with the Group could publish their work. La Part du Sable and the associated imprint Editions Masses published a series of literary and critical works from 1944 onwards, many of them included in the exhibition. Among these were works by Henein himself as well as La Maison de la mort certaine, a first novel by the Franco-Egyptian writer Albert Cossery, whose Arabic-language short stories had previously appeared in Al-Tatawwur. 

The final rooms of the exhibition draw attention to the Art and Liberty Group’s influence and afterlife, presenting the new adventures of selected careers. Some members of the Group, particularly those with strong international connections, left Egypt for France or other countries. Others struggled with changing political circumstances at home.

According to the catalogue, Henein was “forced into exile” in 1962, living for the rest of his life in Paris. Cossery left Egypt in 1945, publishing his next eight novels in Paris and becoming a fixture of literary life in the French capital. Al-Telmisany was arrested for political activities in 1946, subsequently seeing periods in and out of gaol but eventually making a career in cinema. The editor of Al-Majalla Al-Gedida, a left-wing newspaper, until it was banned by the government, Younan was imprisoned for political activities before leaving Egypt in 1947.  

Other members of the Group stayed in Egypt, where two of them at least had remarkable careers. Injy Afflatoun became one of the best-known artists of her generation, not only for her artistic work but also for her political commitments and conflicts with successive political regimes. Abdel-Hadi Al-Gazzar, associated as a young man with the Art and Liberty Group before becoming one of the best known members of its successor the Contemporary Art Group, produced pictures that brought together European technique with vernacular iconography, becoming one of Egypt’s most celebrated artists before his death in 1966.

Taken as a whole, Art et liberté, rupture, guerre et Surréalisme en Egypte is a remarkable exhibition that appeals on several levels. For those familiar only with modern European art, it provides a welcome excursus into extra-European modernism. For those having some familiarity with both, it modifies standard accounts of Surrealism and complicates ideas of self and other in 20th-century art. 

Sponsored by Qatari national Hassan Al-Thani, from whose personal collection some of the works on show are drawn, and by the Sawiris Cultural Foundation in Egypt, it opens up intriguing questions for research on the global reach and local manifestations of 20th-century experiments in the arts.

An earlier Pompidou Centre exhibition, Modernités plurielles, a stimulating rehang of its permanent collection, sought to re-examine conventional Eurocentric narratives of the origins and development of modern art. The present Egyptian Surrealism exhibition continues this ambition, with Bardaouil and Tellrath’s catalogue containing much previously inaccessible material that will appeal to anyone interested in Egyptian and international modern art.


Art et Liberté, rupture, guerre et Surréalisme en Egypte (1938-1948), Centre Pompidou, Paris, until 16 January.

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